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Starting Pitcher Draft Strategy (Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
Feb 8, 2018

I want to start off by establishing that this draft strategy is based on a 12-team mixed league. There are two reasons for this. First, it’s the most commonly played fantasy baseball league size. The other reason is more than half of the leagues I play in are 12-team mixed, so selfishly this is the process I use going into those leagues.

That being said, let’s get into my starting pitcher draft strategy and when to target pitchers in your draft. In the past I would never reach for a top-tier pitcher because you can find waiver wire talent throughout the year and starting pitchers are the riskiest to draft due to injuries, especially with the new 10-day DL. In fact, there were 165 DL stints by starting pitchers in 2017 which made up over 25% of all DL trips last year! Plus you can always stream pitchers based on matchups if your late-round fliers don’t pan out. Let’s take a quick look at some background from 2017.

The landscape of pitching is changing, and starting pitchers aren’t going as deep into games as they were as recently as six years ago. The league leader in innings pitched in 2017 was Chris Sale with 214. In 2010, the leader was Roy Halladay (RIP) with 250.

Why is this happening? Well, some teams pull a pitcher early in an attempt to keep them healthy. Others will pull a starter after two times through the order because statistically starters do not fare as well the third time through the order due to the batter’s familiarity with the pitcher or due to fatigue or a combination of both. Many organizations have stocked up on flame-throwing arms in their bullpen and can generate better results once the starter reaches the fifth inning. Also, the new 10-day DL, which was implemented in 2017, is really a great way for organizations to give their horses a little rest by skipping only one start. The Dodgers seemed to use this strategy more than any other team in 2017 with their SP depth, but I can see teams giving this a shot in 2018. The 200-IP workhorse is becoming a dying breed. Here is the number of 200 inning pitchers from 2014 through 2017: 34, 28, 15, 15. The last two being 2016 and 2017. This is not just a single-year fluke. It’s becoming a trend.

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Early Rounds: When to Draft Your Ace
With the new pitching landscape in mind, I find it more important than ever to grab that top-tier ace who will give you 200+ IP with a 10+ K rate (contrary to my previous strategies from a few years ago). For me, there’s only four in the top tier, and that’s Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, and Chris Sale (in that order). Kershaw is the only one who I have major doubts about getting 200 innings, but he’s so dominant, all he needs is about 175-180. I hate drafting an SP in the first round unless it’s at the turn. I like to nail down a stud hitter then grab the best available SP from the four above. Once you’ve got your stud, go back to focusing on some hitting. (If you draft one of these aces, skip to Grab a Solid No. 2)

Second Tier Ace
There will be times where you’re unable to get one of the big four if you’re drafting in one of the top three spots (give or take). In that case, I’m loading up hitters for my first three picks and waiting to grab two pitchers at the turn in rounds four and five. Some of the guys I love more than others that could fall to you in rounds four and five are Jacob DeGrom, Luis Severino, Zack Greinke, Yu Darvish, Robbie Ray and Carlos Martinez. I love Aaron Nola so much I might even throw him in there. These are the guys who can still provide elite strikeouts and solid ratios (don’t worry too much about the wins, those are a bit more fickle). I actually might like this strategy better because you potentially have two aces as opposed to one. At this point, I won’t be drafting another starter until the middle round 10 or 11. (Skip to Middle Rounds – SP No. 3 & 4 portion of the article)

Grab a Solid No. 2
If I end up with one of the four aces, I’m waiting until at least round six or seven to get my number two. Since I spent a late-first or early-second round pick on my ace, I won’t be reaching for my second SP. Some of the pitchers I like that can fall to you in this spot are the previously mentioned Aaron Nola (though I doubt he’ll be there), Chris Archer, Jose Quintana, or James Paxton. Quintana is safe but the other three are not as trustworthy yet have more upside. Since you nailed down your horse, I like taking that upside. I could even see a massive reach for Luis Castillo who I love but so does everyone else. We could realistically see his ADP jump into the top 80, so he might be too much of a reach. That being said, late in the eighth or early ninth round, I’d pull the trigger on Castillo. If a guy like Robbie Ray falls into the sixth round, don’t hesitate to draft him as your number two. He’s got ace-like upside if he can curb the walks. (Read: Middle Rounds – SP No. 3 & 4)

Middle Rounds – SP No. 3 & 4
Now, we are back on track regardless of which strategy you’ve taken. I’ve got two SPs that I’m happy with and now hit the meaty part of the draft. We need to jump on two more pitchers somewhere in rounds 10-13. I like guys currently being undervalued like Masahiro Tanaka, Zack Godley, Luke Weaver, David Price, Sonny Gray, Marcus Stroman, Geritt Cole, and Jeff Samardzija. All of these guys are going between picks 100 and 160. With these picks, I’m mixing floor and upside to balance out my rotation. For instance, pair Marcus Stroman with Luke Weaver, or Zack Godley with Shark. At this point in the draft, you’ve got a great staff with likely two SPs that should get you 200+ IP and two upside plays with at least decent floors. I’m happy to pass on pitchers for the next several rounds to fill out my starting lineup offensively and grab another RP (at this point we’ve got one closer but this article isn’t about closers, is it?). I should mention that I’d be drafting Shohei Ohtani around the 10th or 11th round. Unfortunately, he’s long gone in most drafts at that spot, but if he’s there grab him and pair him with Geritt Cole or Marcus Stroman.

Late Rounds – Complete Your Rotation
Most 12-team mixed leagues will have somewhere between 22 and 26 rounds depending on each league’s unique setup. The last two or three SPs for me will be taken between rounds 18 and the last round. So many pitchers slip through the cracks late in drafts, and I want to make sure that I have spots available to grab them. If I’m only getting two more, I want one upside player and a floor player. If I’m getting three more, I’m going with two upside players/prospects and still one floor or veteran pitcher. Some great floor pitchers going around pick 200+ I like are Kenta Maeda, Chase Anderson, Patrick Corbin, Aaron Sanchez, Tanner Roark, Michael Wacha, and Tyler Chatwood. Some upside players and/or prospects sure to be called up early I like this year are Mike Clevinger, Blake Snell, Luiz Gohara, Joe Musgrove, Jack Flaherty, Chad Kuhl, Michael Kopech, and Brent Honeywell. Let’s take a look at how a typical draft might go for me with the two strategies I’ve highlighted above. I’ve included my projections for these rotations as well, and the results will put you in contention no matter which strategy you decide.

Top Tier Ace

Name Team Wins ERA IP K WHIP
Max Scherzer Nationals 18 2.79 210 268 0.98
Masahiro Tanaka Yankees 15 3.51 190 199 1.14
Chris Archer Rays 12 3.78 195 232 1.23
Jeff Samardzija Giants 12 3.98 199 187 1.20
Luiz Gohara Braves 11 3.77 155 163 1.28
Chase Anderson Brewers 11 3.76 170 162 1.26
Trevor Bauer Indians 11 3.97 177 178 1.31
 Totals   90 3.63 1296 1389 1.19


Two Potential 2nd Tier Aces

Name Team Wins ERA IP K WHIP
Jacob deGrom Mets 15 3.39 202 224 1.17
Carlos Martinez Cardinals 16 3.52 202 208 1.20
David Price Red Sox 13 3.76 182 180 1.21
Jameson Taillon Pirates 12 3.50 185 164 1.15
Luke Weaver Cardinals 10 3.65 158 162 1.21
Dinelson Lamet Padres 10 3.94 162 189 1.31
Blake Snell Rays 11 3.81 177 182 1.28
 Totals   87 3.64 1268 1309 1.20


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Max Freeze is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Max, check out his archive and follow him @FreezeStats.

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